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100 years of Bel-itude

Posted in Aging, Life & Love, and Women's issues

There used to be a running joke about Playboy – that men read the magazine “for of the articles”. That the boobs and whatnot were only window dressing for some good, deep thoughts. And there was definitely truth in that old lie – the number of literary giants whose works have appeared in Playboy is staggering.
 The list certainly competes with The New Yorker (and the articles are shorter, and the jokes were better, and they had pretty pictures): Vladimir Nabokov (interviewed by Alvin Toffler about Lolita!), Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut and Isaac B. Singer, to name a few.

And Playboy didn’t think that only the fellas had brains: Nadine Gordimer (one of South African’s finest writers), Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing and Anne Sexton (a poet!!) have written for the magazine through the years.

Sadly the times and retail pressures created by the internet have changed Playboy, and now readers are treated to the musician John Mayer banging on (and I use that phrase advisedly) about: sex, his racist penis (I kid you not, John and his dick may have to start dating separately – apparently), sex, Jennifer Aniston, sex, and Jessica Simpson (sexual napalm reportedly). I don’t read Playboy anymore, well I haven’t since the 70s when my Dad smuggled them back from the US. But I saw JM’s sorry sell-servicing piece online a while ago, whilst reading Rolling Stone. And I still want to give that idiot a good slap.

But I digress.

Vogue US publishes two issues a year that I hate to miss.

The September Issue – immortalized by the movie of the same name – is the Epic. 2012’s issue (which I haven’t seen because it didn’t make it to SA for some reason) was 916 pages in length. It’s not all editorial – or even close to mostly-editorial. Wikipedia have done the count: they say that the famed 2007 issue contained 516 pages of ads.Which got people all riled up. I don’t really care about that, Vogue has to pay the bills. Besides the ads are usually beautiful and arty, and the cover price stays the same. But I can see how a newbie to the Vogue-ethos might get their La Perlas in a tangle. The September issue could be construed as a giant catalogue for hire.

Then there’s August. If September is “fashion war and carefully selected pieces”; August tasks us with considering “life and how to live it”. For more than a decade, Vogue have dedicated their 8th edition, each year, to exploring Age. They discuss products and issues associated with longevity. They show us that couture is wearable at any age (ha ha) but, more importantly – August celebrates notable women, from around the world. Usually aged between 29 and 89, these women must be fearless and stylish to make the grade: their stories uplifting and empowering.

2012’s “Age Issue” had a little extra.  This year, Vogue August featured : “Wonder Women from 28 to 101.”  And that lady with a hundred years under her belt is Bel Kaufman.

Bel Kaufman in her Manhattan Apartment. Scarf by Pucci.

I didn’t know about Bel Kaufman until I read the article. But it seems that at 101, she’s as witty and wise and defiant of the status quo as ever. And she is still writing.

Bel is a life-long teacher.  Who has worn may (stylish) hats. Her book Up the Down Staircase (published in 1965 when Bel was in her 50s) is a thinly-disguised recounting of her experiences defying bureaucracy when she was a high-school teacher in New York. Bel spent 64 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

Life wasn’t always easy. Ms Kaufman was born in Odessa, Russia. She was a child in Moscow during the Russian Revolution and her family was persecuted for being Jewish. There was little food and people were  starving. Their bodies, lay in the streets – frozen in odd positions. She explained to Vogue:: “But a child has no basis for comparison. Doesn’t every child step over dead bodies? I didn’t know any different.”

Bel and her family moved to New York when she was 12. Although she was put back into the First Grade – because she couldn’t speak English – Bel grew up being passionate about poetry, which she reads in Russian, English, French and German. She has a master’s degree in English and comparative literature from Columbia, but opted to teach high school because: “I felt that college students were already finished; I would be of no great influence to them. I wanted to show high schoolers, for whom I could still make some difference, the joy in reading and writing and learning, before the malaise of later life.”

Later life malaise was certainly something Bel didn’t succumb to …  after the huge success of Staircase, she went on to become an in-demand speaker – specializing in Jewish humor. No surprise when you consider that her grandfather was Sholem Aleichem, a great Yiddish writer who gently distilled heartbreaking humor out of the most threadbare deprivation.  He was also the creator of Tevye the Dairyman: whose bittersweet tales became the basis for the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”

In fact last year, when the New York Times interviewed Bel about her 100th birthday, she was teaching a course about Jewish humor at Hunter College, her alma mater. One of the jokes the class dissected:  “The Frenchman says: ‘I’m tired and thirsty. I must have wine.’ The German says: ‘I’m tired and thirsty. I must have beer.’ The Jew says: ‘I’m tired and thirsty. I must have diabetes.’ ”

“We were not just telling jokes,” Ms. Kaufman told the Times, her eyes glinting mischievously. “We were investigating why so many comedians are Jewish and so many Jewish jokes are so self-accusing.”

Unlike many of the women featured in the glossies – Bel doesn’t talk about green tea enemas, or eating only on alternate days, or eschewing coffee and cocktails for mung bean juice and oxygen water (yes Madonna, I am referring to you). Those things don’t even feature. She talks about what she has learned and what she knows to be true. And the simple pleasure she enjoys.

I don’t think Vogue will mind if I leave you with a bit of that wisdom:

“I’ve lived a long time, a very long time, 101 years, and I’m still here. I’m done with the doubts and struggles and insecurities of youth. I’m finished with loss and guilt and regret. I’m very old, and nothing is expected of me. Now, provided good health continues, I can do what I want. I can write my memoirs. I can edit my works for future eBooks. I can even do nothing – what a luxury that is!

I have new priorities and a new appreciation of time. I enjoy my family more than ever, and also a sunny day and a comfortable bed. I keep up my interest in books and theater and people, and when I’m tired, I rest…. I had many problems and disasters in my life; fortunately at my age, I don’t remember what they were. I’m glad I am 101.”

Playboy take note – you could do worse than hire Bel to add a little classy schtick to your pages. You’ll find her in Manhattan, living happily with her second husband, Sidney Gluck who at 94 is seven years younger than his lady wife:  “He likes older women”, Bel told the Times with a chuckle.

Bel Kaufman: the ultimate cougar. In the nicest possible way.

PS:  Along with Bel, Vogue introduced Alexandra Kosteniuk (28) a former world chess champion, who is working on making chess accessible to girls, Ginevra Elkann (32) great-great-great granddaughter of  Fiat’s Gianni Agnelli who is caretaking the family name and fortune with parallel careers as a movie director, producer and  mother. Then there’s Mona Locke (46) ex News-anchor and wife of the US Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, Katie Ford (56), who quite her CEO spot at Ford Models, and embarked on a global mission to end forced labour.  We meet the writer, Historian and Baroness Mary Soames (90), Sir Winston Churchill’s youngest daughter. And, finally and movingly, Kati Marton, who at 63 found herself writing about the most challenging topic of her career: the sudden death of her husband, diplomat Richard Holbrook .  A good bunch all round.

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One Comment

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